NASHVILLE, Tenn. For Vanderbilt, it wasn't so much a question of how as it was how many in a 22-6 win over visiting Kentucky on Saturday.
With the victory, the Commodores (6-4) became bowl eligible for a third-consecutive season for the first time in program history. With a win at Tennessee next Saturday or against visiting Wake Forest on Nov. 30 in the regular season finale, Vanderbilt will be guaranteed of consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1974-75.
Per the usual, though, Vanderbilt's third-year coach James Franklin would only acknowledge Saturday's victory that came in front of 33,488 at Vanderbilt Stadium and not what it meant for the program overall.
"When you beat an SEC team, you couldn't be more excited," said Franklin, whose team is 3-4 in SEC play this season. "We are going to enjoy it tonight, and tomorrow we are going to focus on our next opponent. At the end of the year, we'll come in here and you guys will tell us if we've been invited to go somewhere.
"And there is nobody who will be more excited than us."
After intercepting three passes in its win last week at Florida, the Vanderbilt defense came up with a season-high four interceptions of Kentucky sophomore quarterback Jalen Whitlow, including three in the first half. Senior free safety Kenny Ladler's team-leading fourth interception of the year came with under six minutes to play and put to rest any thoughts of a late comeback by the Wildcats (2-8, 0-6).
"The turnovers were huge," said Franklin, whose team entered the game third in the league and 34th nationally in turnover margin. "We talk about it every single week, but the turnovers were really big, especially against that team that has done a great job of protecting the football all year long."
Also coming up with interceptions for the Commodores were senior cornerback Andre Hal, redshirt freshman cornerback Paris Head and sophomore free safety Andrew Williamson,
"We want to win and we want to go to bowl games," said Hal, who like Ladler and Williamson also had interceptions against Florida. "That's our expectation now."
The Commodores also enjoyed the return of senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, who was cleared to play Saturday morning after missing the two previous games with a leg injury. He completed 19-of-24 passes for 184 yards. That total included a career-high 12 catches for 141 yards by senior wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who became the first Commodore to have consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
"I felt good out there today so I'm excited to be back out there with my team," Carta-Samuels said of returning to action. " ... I'm really glad we got to that (six-win) threshold because now we can just focus on beating our next opponent. Our coaches keep us really in the moment, and they do a great job of that."
Vanderbilt finally added to its shaky 9-6 halftime lead with a 26-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter by kicker Carey Spear for a 12-6 advantage. The Commodores extended that lead to 15-6 with 7:13 remaining on another Spear field goal, this time from 38 yards. The key play of the drive was a 34-yard reception by Matthews.
The Commodores finally put the game away when backup quarterback Patton Robinette connected with tight end Kris Kontera on a 13-yard jump pass over the middle on fourth down with 47 seconds remaining. The score capped a 10-play, 55-yard drive to provide the final margin of victory.
"It's the same old song and dance," said first-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, whose team in the first half outgained the Commodores 169-79 in total offense and had 12 first downs to the Commodores' four. That included the Wildcats rushing for 109 yards on 26 carries and converting 6-of-10 third-down plays into first downs.
But by the end of the game, Vanderbilt had gained 313 yards of total offense, including a game-high 77 rushing yards by sophomore running back Jerron Seymour, to Kentucky's 262. Whitlow completed 14-of-28 passes for 120 yards and also rushed for a team-high 69 yards.
"I'm upset and frustrated," Stoops said. "I thought our team played hard, but we just didn't make plays when we had to. We had certain plays set up and we didn't execute and they executed their plays.That was the difference in the game."
Using a no-huddle offense, Kentucky took its opening possession 75 yards on 12 plays to score the game's first touchdown on a two-yard run by freshman running back Jojo Kemp. But the Wildcats' extra-point kick was blocked by Vanderbilt freshman defensive lineman Adam Butler and returned 75 yards for a two-point conversion by defensive back Steven Clarke, leaving Kentucky with only a 6-2 lead.
"I thought that was a huge play in the game," Franklin said of the blocked extra-point kick that not only resulted in two points via the return, but thwarted any early momentum the upset-minded Wildcats might have gained.
After picking up only one first down on its first three offensive possessions, Vanderbilt got a big lift from its defense when Hal picked off a pass by Whitlow that skipped off the hands of intended receiver Demarco Robinson. Getting the ball at the Kentucky 26-yard line, the Commodores scored three plays later when running back Brian Kimbrow raced untouched up the middle from 21 yards out to give Vanderbilt a 9-6 lead.
Vanderbilt's second interception of the first half halted a drive that had Kentucky moving from its own 9-yard line to past midfield. But a floating pass from Whitlow intended for receiver Javess Blue down the right sideline was picked off by Head, who caught the ball over his left shoulder with his back to the throw.
The Commodores grabbed a third interception in the first half when a Hail Mary pass from Whitlow was picked off by Williamson near the goal line as time expired.
"We definitely played as well as we have against a spread offense and a mobile quarterback since we've been here," Franklin said of his defense that got a game-high eight tackles from Ladler.
On its second possession of the second half, Kentucky drove to the Vanderbilt 28-yard line. But a fake field goal on what would have been a 47-yard kick on fourth-and-6 was snuffed by the Commodores' defense. The snap went directly to holder Jeff Badet, who lost two yards while trying to rush off the left side.
The Commodores had a chance to extend their halftime lead then they drove their second possession of the second half to the Kentucky 17-yard line, but a 34-yard field goal attempt by Spear hooked errantly to the left. The big play of the drive was Carta-Samuels lining up as a receiver, taking a cross-field lateral throw from Seymour, and then heaving as pass 41 yards down field to Matthews.
"There was just great protection on the (offensive) line," Matthews said. "Austyn's also got a cannon, so when you have him in there it's easy to call those shot plays and be confident in him because he's going to be able to draw back and put a ball up there and make it extremely catchable.
"He's just doing a great job, and it's great to have him back."